The Schrodinger Solution for Syria


(Photo: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr Commons )

In medieval Europe, the king had two bodies.

He sat on his throne in his own personal body, which suffered from the same sicknesses and infirmities that afflict all corporeal beings. But he also possessed a second body, the body politic, which represented the entire realm. The king served as “head of state,” a phrase that harkens back to this peculiar political theology. After the death of his own physical body, the king’s second body passed on to his successor, ideally his male offspring.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also has two bodies, and he’s worried about the fate of both of them.

The Syrian body politic is in the process of slow-motion dismemberment, for the head of state has lost quite a few of his extremities. Yet Assad is clinging to power in this shrunken entity, fearful of what might happen to his physical body — and those of his family and colleagues — if he should leave power, voluntarily or involuntarily. Images of the end days of Saddam Hussein (hanged) and Muammar Gadhafi (beaten, sodomized with a bayonet, and shot to death) are surely uppermost in his mind. Prison, exile, and answering charges in front of the International Criminal Court are only slightly less palatable scenarios.

The negotiations that took place last week in Vienna over the fate of Syria are the latest attempt to resolve a conflict that has lasted more than four years, left more than 250,000 dead, and displaced 11 million more. The diplomats are trying to come up with a compromise to transform Syria’s body politic. But the major sticking point is the actual body of Bashar al-Assad.

Some countries want Assad to stay. Some countries want him to go. In the end, we might end up with what physicists call a superposition of states. Call it Schrodinger’s Assad. The only sensible solution to the Syrian crisis is a quantum one in which the human-rights-abusing president is simultaneously there and not there.

Vacillation in Vienna

Diplomats from 17 countries, the EU, and the UN descended on Vienna last Friday. They were focused on resolving the conflict in Syria but not ending the war. This might seem like a contradiction in terms. It’s also what has made the situation in Syria so monstrously difficult to address.

In their final communiqué, the parties agreed that “it is imperative to accelerate all diplomatic efforts to end the war.” But at the same time, they agreed that the Islamic State “must be defeated.” And they were not talking about defeating the Islamic State through some soft power tactic like releasing videos that question the leadership’s virility or piety. “Degrading” the Islamic State means bombing them out of existence.

And the assembled diplomats were not just worried about the Islamic State. They agreed to defeat “other terrorist groups, as designated by the U.N. Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants.” Given that the “terrorist” label has been used to describe a large variety of actors in Syria — Russia and Turkey, for instance, have been bombing groups that the United States has been supplying — this particular clause in the communiqué doesn’t clarify who exactly is part of the problem and who is part of the solution.

Meanwhile, as the negotiators in Vienna were either hashing things out or just making a hash of things, many of their governments were actually ratcheting up the conflict. On the very day of the conference, the Obama administration announced that it was dispatching its first troops to Syria — a contingent of a few dozen Special Operations forces. The day before the conference, both the Syrian and Russian air forces conducted significant bombardments.

Given such mixed messages, the background music to the Vienna negotiations was not a comforting waltz but the immortal 1966 Fugs song Kill For Peace with its catchy lyrics: Kill, kill, kill for peace/Kill, kill, kill for peace/Near or middle or very far east/Far or near or very middle east.

Then there’s the question of the territorial integrity of Syria. “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character are fundamental,” the communiqué states. That all sounds nice. But where does that put the Syrian Kurds, who are bent on establishing their own autonomous region in the north and are the recipients of U.S. largesse? And at least some of the forces receiving weaponry from the United States (and certainly from Saudi Arabia) are not committed to a secular future for Syria. Ditto some of Iran’s friends on the ground.

Indeed, the dynamic established in Syria by the contending parties and their backers suggests a very Iraq-like future for the country, with a Kurdish-Sunni-Shia cleavage destroying any hopes of territorial integrity.

Finally, the negotiators made a nod in the direction of self-determination. “This political process will be Syrian led and Syrian owned, and the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria,” the communiqué reads. And yet, there was not a single Syrian at the table in Vienna. This was no oversight. It simply speaks to the utter lack of consensus over who has the moral authority to speak for Syrians today.

There is no mention of Bashar al-Assad in the final communiqué. But his presence (and potential absence) looms over any discussion of Syria’s future.

Winners and Losers

The United States has long followed the “great man” theory of geopolitics in which leaders, benign or malign, are what matter. The United States practices foreign policy as if it were playing the market: picking winners and losers, hedging bets, engaging in the worst kind of speculation, and even indulging in some insider trading.

The “winners” are people like Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is supposed to be tying his country back together but in fact has done almost as much as his predecessor to split it apart. Past winners have included the Shah of Iran, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and (briefly) Saddam Hussein.

The losers are even easier to identify: Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein (again), North Korea’s Kim Jong Eun. Just as the winners are expected to do our bidding and achieve quick results, the losers are expected to herald a new era of prosperity through their political or physical annihilation.

And so it is with Assad as well. The Obama administration has an almost mystical belief that the removal of the Syrian president will magically make Syria whole once again. In other words, Washington has the same kind of faith in the body of the Syrian leader as the medieval community had in the holy king. The removal of Assad’s body, a political tumor, will somehow heal the Syrian body politic, as if the two were congenitally connected.

But the United States doesn’t have any replacement at the ready.

After all, it’s not clear-cut who’s doing what on the ground in Syria. UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura has confessed that he is dealing in Syria with “230 different entities, groups, and the government.” The nearest thing to a government in exile — the Syrian National Council — has only one demand: the removal of Assad. Like the United States, it doesn’t have much of a plan for what to do in his stead. That’s not because the creation of plans is particularly difficult. Rather, how do you implement a plan when you have to get some semblance of consensus among 230 different entities, many of whom would much rather slit each other’s throats than hammer out political, economic, or social compromises?

Bashar al-Assad is not a charismatic figure. Nor does he maintain legitimacy through the exercise of policymaking brilliance. He’s a 3F kind of guy: he rules by force, fealty, and fear. In many ways, the Assad clan has reproduced a medieval system of authority. His father Hafez al-Assad started out embracing a version of Baathism — an amalgam of Syrian nationalism, pan-Arabism, and quasi-socialism — but gradually boiled down this ideology into the “Assadism” of an unquestioned leader, a personality cult, and a hereditary dynasty. The remnants of Assadism command the loyalties of three overlapping constituencies: tribe (around 2 million Alawites), party (the 1.2 million members of the Baath party), and patronage (government officials plus 250,000 in the Syrian army, including reservists).

It’s of course conceivable that all of these people will switch their loyalties to another representative figure. But that doesn’t appear to be in the offing.

A Quantum Compromise

And so we return to the Schrodinger solution.

According to quantum theory, a particle can exist in two different states at the same time. Physicist Erwin Schrodinger was uncomfortable with this superposition, so he devised a thought experiment that involved a cat in a box with some radioactive material and poison gas. The intricacies of this scenario aside, Schrodinger created his infamous cat to translate indeterminacy at a micro level into absurdity at a macro level (i.e.: a cat that is both dead and alive at the same time).

We are in a similar agony of macro-level uncertainty when it comes to Syria. How can we simultaneously oust Assad and defeat the Islamic State? How can we simultaneously respect the territorial integrity of Syria and support forces working to break it apart? How can we put the political process in the hands of Syrians and not invite a single one to the negotiating table? These paradoxes, as Schrodinger might have argued, reflect an underlying incoherence in our theories about Syria.

And yet, when it comes to a morass like Syria, it is only fitting that we fight paradox with paradox. The only sensible approach is to compromise on Assad by devising a political solution that keeps the head of state in power (nominally) and yet deprives him of power (substantively). Inside the box of Syria, Assad would be both politically dead and politically alive at the same time. It’s all a matter of perception, of course. Assad may well believe that he is the head of state even though everyone else treats him as a figurehead. In this way, compromises and political transitions are made.

In Vienna, the negotiators thought that an end was in sight for Syria. Without more substantial compromise, however, it will be the country, not the conflict, that will wink out of existence — the body politic and the body Assad both consumed in the flames of a civil war, a sectarian war, and a proxy war all combining into one huge conflagration.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • Kwei Quartey

    Brilliant and fascinating. I’ve never seen it discussed in that way.

  • Gerry1211

    Well thank goodness it is not up to various and sundry “wise men” who presume to know what is or what is not good for Syria, all of it based on carefully constructed demonization of a very popular leader in his own country….Assad, a very kind and good Ophthalmologist (that’s a Eye surgeon) found himself in the awkward position of having to take over the Presidency after his brother unexpectedly died in an automobile accident. At home he is known as “Assad the Softy” He is known to express great concern for what permanent damage this war may be doing to a whole generation of children. Nefarious deeds committed by foreign paid/trained terrorist are ascribed to Assad. The MSM is working overtime. True he is not charismatic – Hitler WAS and see what he did!!! Assad is shy but stubborn. Not legitimate? Rules by FEAR? No! He rules not by fear but because he was re-elected by 90% of his people, which would certainly make him legitimate. WHY the popularity? Because he protects them against foreign paid terrorists. See this is where this articles loses any and all logic because it is based on untruths.

    Syria is only a morass to those who are unfamiliar with the region or American political shenanigans or who try to obfuscate the reality as this article clearly is trying to do.. In reality it is quite simple. The U.S. wants Assad out of the way in order to allow Qatar’s pipeline to Europe in order to undermine the Russians.

    What this whole tome is carefully ignoring is that our game, however complicated you wish to make it is an illegal one. When we enter another country’s sovereign air space we commit an act of war….When we then bomb that same country we engage in war crimes. What is painful for Washington is that in Vienna it clearly showed the Emperor has no close and and no matter how complicated Kerry wishes to make it, the rest of the world understands quite well who is moving the pieces on the chess board. Russia is! Russia is following International Law and is in Syria by INVITATION of the legitimate Syrian Government. The U.S. is violating International Law and the U.N Statutes. The consequences of this is that the Russians would, by International Law, have every right to blow any U.S. military aircraft out of the sky…..The fact that they have so far not done so attests to a decency Washington clearly lacks.

    The U.S. should be taken before the ICC on war crimes in Iraq and the killing of Saddam Hussein, a head of State…..on Libya for the war crimes committed there and the killing of Gadaffi and now for having created/paid/funded/armed a mercenary band of terrorists in Syria costing the lives of over 250,000 people. That’s a genocide for which we are accountable. .

    That’s the reality in which we currently find ourselves.

    • John Feffer

      Sorry, pal, but it’s Syrian government forces that are responsible for the vast majority of the casualties in the current conflict. No surprise: they have far more firepower than the rebels. So, “Assad the Softy” is responsible for thousands and thousands of Syrian deaths. Though initially the opthamologist was deemed a nerd and even a reformer when he first took office, he has now far exceeded his father’s ruthlessness. Yes, the United States is responsible for war crimes in Iraq. But I’d ultimately like to see both Bashar and Bush in front of the ICC….

      • Gerry1211

        You’re entitled to your opinions not your own facts. Who did the U.S. bomb in Syria for the past 15 months?.Think they bombed the people they trained/funded and armed….Seriously?…..ever been at the receiving end of bombings? I have. THREE by the U.S. Army Air Corps supposedly with a faulty atlas….

        Of the 250,000 Syrian deaths more than 85,000 were Syrian Arab troops. The rest were innocent civilians/infrastructure (war crimes). Remember the Sarin attack attributed to Assad. It must have really galled you to discover it was all one big lie. Syria has virtually no Armed forces left which is where Hezbollah and Iran have come in. So much for your quoting Washington propaganda. Any opinion on the MSF bombing in Kunduz? So far you make claims without ANY evidence. Try and find some to make your case.

        U.S. is guilty of War crimes in Iraq/Libya/ and Syria. Do brush up on International Law. Obama is accountable for every death in Syria….There is NO civil war. There is a proxy war going on by U.S. paid/trained/armed mercenary/terrorists against Syria who behead people.

        Syrians must be really stupid voting en masse for a killer of his own people. Sounds like the 67,000 Auschwitz inmates who in Jan. 1945 preferred to go with their German guards into Germany rather than wait for the Soviets who were on their way. Did they suffer sudden amnesia that they would go with their own killers if the killing was so routine?….You guys cannot have it both ways. Either it is one thing or the other.

        Very successful American PR has Assad responsible for thousands of Syrian deaths. Just like Saddam Hussein had WMD right!. Or Gadaffi who was a tirant. Right.

        Going back in history, the Nuremberg laws were written ex post facto (illegal) and written in such a way that they only pertained to the Germans and not to the war crimes committed my the allies. Whoever lies first writes history and so it was about WW2, which I believed for 60 years until I learned that it was Wall Street who funded Hitler, that the Dulles brothers were very busy in the early 1930 to get Hitler to power and built his war machine while they made oodles of money from slave labor at Auschwitz….It was not the allies but the Soviets who decimated the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe at the cost of over 27 million Russian lives. The Dulles brothers should have been hanged.

        American history is MYTH!

        You write delusional nonsense pal!

        • John Feffer

          Both Foreign Policy In Focus and I have dedicated article after article to the crimes of U.S. foreign policy. But if you are not able to see the criminal responsibility of other actors in the world — including Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and Bashar al-Assad — then there’s really nothing I can say to persuade you for you have gone through the looking glass…

          • Gerry1211

            Iraqis are praying daily to Allah for the resurrection of Saddam Hussein.

            My Italian friend lived there for 18 years and absolutely loved the place. It was secular and the most Western of countries in the M.E. Women were free to do as they pleased and participated in every part of life. University professors, TV anchors.Iraq had per capita more PhDs than any other western country.
            Food was heavily subsidized. Gasoline was mere pennies. Free healthcare. etc. Saddam Hussein, on average, invaded Kuwait once every THREE to FOUR months….WHY, because the Kuwaitis were slant drilling and stealing oil from Iraq. Once they paid up Iraq would withdraw. Americans are big on stories (short on facts) and create a whole reality around them….It’s like a religion. Remember the young Iraqi nurse bawling in front of tv and describing how Iraqi soldiers were throwing babies out of their incubators on the floor to die. She was non other than the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador, all but 18 years old, carefully coached by a PR firm….The whole thing was a hoax and we committed war crimes.
            Remember SH’s supposed gassing of the Kurds in Hallabja? Ever read Stephen Pelletiere’s article in the NYT “A War Crime or an Act of War” in which he states that based on Information he read in the State Dept.archives in the proxie war between Iraq and Iran BOTH sides used gas. As Iran had invaded the Iraqi town of Hallabja a fierce fight ensued….Kurds died of a gas the Iraqies did not have….see we provided them all these illegal chemicals and we knew precisely what they did and did not have. This little bit of truth did not prevent Bush nor anyone in Think Landia to attribute it to evil SH because that was ever so helpful in the cause of setting up a foreign leader. If you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. No sane person can make up this trash….but Washington engages in it as it dishes up the most idiotic stories for sheeple consumption.
            SH biggest mistake was that he didn’t sing Dixie!!! And he had the nerve to start selling oil in the Euro thereby threatening the Dollar as the Reserve Currency.

            Gadaffi – Libyans can write books about their lives with Gadaffi. …You needed a car, the Gov. gave you $5,000.00. Free healthcare, free schooling etc. But he didn’t sing either and committed the cardinal sin to want to create a Pan African Banking system…..

            So Americans who have no gumption as to HOW to collect intelligence and have no intelligence on the ground anywhere( and that includes Syria where we have, for 15 months, been bombing whatever looked like Syrian Arab Army as well as infrastructure) engage in stories, the worse the better starting a whole new religion vilifying these people and turned them into new Hitlers while we caused the killing of over 250,000 people. We trained and are funding the mercenaries/terrorists and WE did the bombing of arbitrary things because we have no contact with the Syrian Government, but we accuse THEM of the killings??? Seriously. Logic please!!! We claim to want to liberate them as we bomb them into the stone age. Right. Of cause this begs the question what right the U.S. has to summarily invade and bomb other sovereign countries around the Globe. But I’m sure you have come up with a good theory
            “If the Nuremberg Laws were observed today EVERY U.S. president post WW2 would have been hanged on war crimes” Noam Chomsky
            My very active in-the-underground-father’s opinion on the subject of heroes is that it is an invention created by those whose interest is war making…The U.S. is the ONLY Western country where the word freedom has an invisible hyphen connected to sacrifice. Freedom requires sacrifice is a typical American lie. But if I were to ever consider what a hero might look like my attention immediately focuses on Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn.

            Providing some reality in a war I personally experienced, where nothing is black and white and almost everything is gray…….The Netherlands did not have a National Health care System…..The Germans on the other hand had such a system since the late 1800s….So the civilian Nazi leader in the Netherlands during WW2, the Austrian Arthur Seyss-Inquart (commonly referred to as “Six and a Quart”) created a Dutch National Healthy care system based on what the Germans had all these years. I grew up in that system. I also grew up in rubble and attended school in a bombed out building. We did not get another HS until 1957……

            So after having graduated “Little Red Ridinghood” and “Hansl and Gretl” I don’t buy stories/opinions but check for well documented facts.
            Nothing about the orthodox history about WW2 is in fact so. NOTHING

            Oh…..A suggestion, rather than concentrating on the supposed evil of a foreign leader on the other side of the Globe who has never been a threat to us you might devote some time in figuring out “the psychosis” that seems to effect Washington that allows US to inflict all manner of terror across the globe whenever we wish. .

      • Gerry1211

        Father Frans in his letters home divulged that the land for his farm and center was generously given to him by President Assad who supports ALL religions and supported his work.

        As one who appreciate languages it was amusing to hear that President Assad in his speeches speaks FORMAL Arabic rather than ANY of other M.E. leaders.

  • fuster

    close, but the better solution is to have Bashir Assad simultaneously either not there or dead.

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